Friday, January 27, 2012

"Unspoiled" - My addition to the Queen's Thief week!

Chachic had the wonderful idea of making a Queen's Thief week - and lots of other bloggers jumped in to help! I fear I'm not deserving of their far more experienced company, but here is my attempt to add to the discussion.

If you have not read through book 2 (The Queen of Attolia) DO NOT PROCEED... Part of this post is ABOUT how I proceeded years ago and got a spoiler!

Some Thoughts about Suffering, Spoilers, Gen, and Attolia

I was such a bad reader about those books, at first.
I didn't like the brief description of The Thief in my library's brochure, so I made up my mind I wasn't going to read the books. In which case, I thought, what matter a few spoilers?
Now, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. The choicest secrets - Gen's identity, Gen's tricks, Gen's eventual romance - all remained unrevealed, by some miracle. But one thing I did manage to learn: that the main character gets his hand cut off in the beginning of book 2. I didn't know this fellow at all then, so I wasn't much in the way of caring at the time. I did think, "What, [checks mentally] this is a kids' book, right?"
In the end - I can't remember exactly what put me over the edge - I read The Thief, quickly following with The Queen of Attolia. I was expecting that particular scene when it came; I had steeled myself for it. My original reaction, then, was much less dramatic than those of other Gen-fans. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have read it with no prior warning.
And then I found out, sort of...
I'd lent The Thief to some of my kid friends and, after their enthusiastic response, I dropped by one afternoon with book 2. Idly, I began to read aloud the first paragraphs. (Lots of stuff about the interior architecture of megarons - fascinating, wasn't it?) The kids thought I'd hit on something fun. We settled down to read.
Well, it was ... something else again.
No, actually the kids seemed remarkably unperturbed by it. I was the one who suddenly noticed how terrifically awful those first four-odd chapters were. I mean - Gen! and Attolia... When I'd read it on my own, I'd known what was coming, and though I was affected, I don't think I really comprehended it all 'round. But when I really got a look at it, I wanted to cry. Because there is real suffering in those chapters, for pretty much everyone - physical suffering, mental suffering, guilt, worry, fear. In another story there might have been an easy way out, but not here. Here decisions are made, nasty things happen, and Gen pays the price for being the daring thief. And oh, what a price.
For the first time, I understood entirely why Eddis declared war.


But it still didn't shake my firm conviction that Eugenides and Irene belong together. What happens in the dark dungeons of Attolia's castle is a deed ordered by a political personage - the Queen of Attolia. But Gen, in what I can only say is a staggering feat of empathy, recognizes the woman beneath the disguise built of necessity. He is able to separate the politics from the person. And Gen has always worked more with people than with politics.
So I, like Gen, must have somehow seen beyond the mask myself. For I have read the first four chapters of book 2 aloud, my throat tight with sympathy, and cheered as Eddis confiscated the caravans' goods and went to war to avenge her Thief's injury - but as I open the cover of each book, and softly set them closed at last, I wish the Queen of Attolia may find joy.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Michael L. Printz Awards

The Michael L. Printz Award site informs me (thanks, Charlotte, for the links to the lists!) that The Scorpio Races has won a Printz Honor!

Congradulations, Maggie Stiefvater, on a good book that's gaining its laurels already.

(Also there is The Returning on the list, which blog readers know did not go across well with me. But I am not going to say anything against the Printz commitee tonight!)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini - shared review since we both read it

Despite our
previous posts, we weren't quite impatient enough to spring for buying this book ourselves. So - the library having a mile-long hold list - we had to wait until we could borrow a copy from some friends of ours who had.

To any of you who will be reading this review, you already know the plot of the Eragon novels. To those who haven't read the previous 3.... why read the review of book 4? So... I can skip a plot outline... which I really don't like to write, so all's well.

We'll try not to spoiler anything important (white text on white is good!) but if you really want to go into the last installment of the series with no prior knowledge, we'll be discussing it in enough depth that you might want to leave now...

Inheritance definitely rises above its predecessors to bring the tetralogy to a more-than-fitting conclusion. Paolini had already shown us about as violent villains as he could in Durza, Morzan, and other imperial commanders - how could he beat that when finally showing us the ultimate villain, Galbatorix? But with the insight of a good author, he switched the playing field! The evil emperor doesn't fight but speaks - in arguments that sound sensible and even true - making me wonder for a minute whether even the author was on his side! But then I saw the subtle flaw, and I marveled at Paolini's newfound skill. (Galbatorix describes for us a real problem, but he doesn't mention that he hasn't even begun to fix it. And even if he does unify all mages under him, how can we trust him? Can even magic oaths bind him who knows the Name of the Language?) When Eragon finally confronts Galbatorix, he doesn't win a cheap triumph with an obvious move like too many other protagonists. Rather, the evil mastermind shows us (not tells us!) that he can and has defeated myriads of other would-be heroes - and Eragon finally takes him down in a completely unexpected way that left me cheering and marveling.

The author's narrative and description skills have grown like a hungry dragon, too. Clunky prose and second-cousin-to-the-right-word's are definitely still in abundance, but there are real gems in there - like when the curtains behind Galbatorix's throne draw themselves back, with four truly excellent paragraphs, to reveal themselves as the black wings of Shruikan. Or, when Eragon and Saphira are thrown up by a huge storm and skim the tips of the atmosphere... A couple pages into the book, I decided to skim most of the words lest I cringe at every awry metaphor or abuse of syntax. But I just couldn't hold myself to that. I needed to slow down and admire the jewels - if not as big as those on the belt of Beloth, at least as shimmery as Saphira's scales.

(Now that you mention it, we never did find that belt. What'd they do with it, anyhow?)

My main problem with Inheritance was that I felt the greatest parts of the story were weighed down by a lot of... not so great parts. There were moments that made me gasp with excitement (though not many), moments that made me go, "oh, awwwww" in a very happy and satisfied way, moments that kept me glued to the page, and moments that bored me.

I'm afraid Paolini has just tried to follow too many threads, and he's not got the greatest idea of what belongs in his story and what doesn't. Three chapters describe one battle from Roran's perspective - the attack of a city we've never seen before and never see again - but we still have a number of unresolved plot points that taggle off into nothing, which seems to me just a shame.

One reviewer didn't read any chapters narrated by Roran, and he said he didn't feel he was missing anything. I wouldn't go that far. Roran's character development is somewhat satisfying in itself, his mature observations on the nature of magic give needed perspective to that issue, and his narrative during the battle at UrĂ»'baen gives us a sense of vastness that Eragon's narrative is missing. (Plus, his comment once that he knows he doesn't have skill but just luck [i.e. authorial intervention] is unintentionally hilarious.) Still - and in retrospect, this problem's been plaguing Roran's narrative ever since the first cut back to him at Carvahall - Paolini doesn't successfully draw him into the main plot thread. If all Carvahall had died, would that have made the least difference to Eragon's efforts? Well, they did rescue Jeod, who pulled a valuable detail out of a book... but other than that, not much. Similarly, all Roran's valiant and intrepid battle leadership doesn't seem to affect what Eragon is doing. Paolini could probably point us to several conversations where characters try to point out how it's vital - and yes, after a lot of reflection, I see it is. But a better author (such as I'm confident Paolini will become) would show his readers that rather than just stating it, so they'll see it without having to spend a while mulling it over.

And this's just one example of a myriad details - such as those sprawling across the hundred post-climactic pages - that, however interesting or even good in its own right, haven't been drawn into the central thread of this book. Oh, yes, Brigid bears a grudge against Roran from Book II. If brought up in some battle, this could've been great suspense! But she and the author left it hanging till after the climax, when it's little more than academically interesting. There's more than enough material in here for a good book, a much better book. Paolini's learned between his first book and now to put that in. I'll be watching his future books for him to learn to draw that together.

Also, it's just clumsily written. I'm sorry, but it is. Paolini is fond of metaphors to the point of distracting the reader, and his prose is quite uninspired for the most part. His characters have improved over the books, and his dialogue shows flashes of goodness, but I couldn't help feeling that the author was banging on the wrong notes most of the time when it came to word and sentence and phrase.

I feel a little sorry for this book - and the author. There, I've said it. Perhaps no one believes me, but I wish Paolini and an editor had really sat down and took another big-picture look before publication. There was so much that could have been fixed and made better, so much that was snarled up with unnecessary flyaway strands, so much potential.

I hope Christopher Paolini writes more. A lot more. I think he's called his life-work right: to be a writer. I'm hoping he's not going to be hindered or held back by the success that came early, for like his characters, he's got what he needs and only lacks training and time. I hope and believe there will be a day when the Inheritance tetralogy is just his "early works" and he's gone beyond anything he's written yet.

Age rec - Phew. Tough one here. Paolini has a fascination with battle scenes that I don't share in the least, and they can get a little detailed - though I wasn't disgusted or disturbed (except by the fact that I was bored in the middle of a battle, which seems wrong).

There's all the torture scenes involving Nasuada - again, handled lightly and well for the most part. However, though Evan may shrug, there's a very nasty and definitely unfortunate chapter later in the same plot thread, and I do not recommend it for anyone young or faint-hearted. I skimmed (Evan and I were reading together) and mentally went, "Hey, not bothering here. Tell me when it's over." It involves the bad guys using maggot-like flesh-eating bugs for torture ... oh, well. (I'm really a bit mad at the author for including them - I had an idea of how their appearance could be justified, but he didn't take it up.)

The romance is written with a refreshingly light and sensible hand. The only potentially objectionable business... well, Saphira, I'm staring at you here, but the last thing I'm going to do is start talking about morality in dragon relationships... (Evan: Thanks for flying offstage right before starting, though...)

So. If you've read the other books, you can read this one pretty much all right too. With warnings for violence and burrowing grubs. Ick. Botheration.


The good, good stuff I loved - better not read if you don't want SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS:

Nasuada and Murtagh, beautiful stuff, understated and... "sweet" seems an insult and a cheapening - I'll call it "good." I tapped the page at one of those chapters and said, "This is the difference between a guy author and a girl author. It's sad when the guy author understands girls better than the girl authors do." Because Nasuada isn't falling all over Murtagh - of course she's not. She's a leader, a commander. It would be wrong for her character. But it's not wrong to put that line in when Murtagh just looks away and says "You know why." And I confess I went mushy and stopped hating Murtagh then. Maybe I'm not noble-army-commander material though...

Of course she doesn't... she's in the middle of fighting against someone he's still sworn to. Letting herself fall for him would be totally contrary to everything she's done before. And Murtagh realizes something of the same thing when he cries to Eragon, "Just one more day and I'd have saved her!" Which Eragon doesn't even believe. Why should he? Maybe Murtagh would've, but we don't know, and I don't think even he should be so sure.

Doru Araeba... so easily he could have made it a peaceful little haven of lost memories and old sorrow, or heaped on all the metaphors he loves and tried to make us cry about the Riders' deaths. But he very nicely evoked a subtle wrongness about the whole place, a nastiness that made me understand why no one liked to hang around there! I liked the "shadows sitting on a branch" line especially.

And he did it in just the right manner. If he waxed lyrical about mysterious powerful magics, readers would - at least, I'd - just shrug and not really know what to think. But at this single moment (and one other), he invoked something else: science. We all know how terrible a nuclear blast is. And his characters stay perfectly in character and in period when talking about it. Beautiful.

...Evan already waxed poetical about the climax, so I'll leave that to him...

And even the sentence when Arya's talking about how Firnen hatched for her. Though I didn't approve entirely of her getting that dragon, I did like that part of her story...
"It was nearly evening, and I was carrying his egg in my lap...speaking to him, telling him of the world and reassuring him that he was safe..." It reminds me so much of how I talk to rescued puppies. That's a scene I wouldn't have minded actually seeing...